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Review: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge

ultionus-01Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge (PC, Ouya)
Developed and Published by Last Dimension
Release Date: December 12th, 2013

PC REQUIREMENTS:
CPU: 2.33 GHz Processor
Memory: 2 GB RAM
HDD: 100 MB available space
Video: OpenGL Compliant Graphics Device, 128 MB VRAM
Input: Keyboard and Mouse or Gamepad

Disproportionately-busty galactic hero, Serena S is having a bad day. She’s saved the universe YET AGAIN, and all the thanks she gets for her hard work is being trolled on Spacebook by a random internet idiot. Vowing full “testicular annihilation,” she sets out to find the person responsible in this more than just a little bit influenced by its inspiration send-up to the classic PC shmup/platformer hybrid, Game Over II.

The retro revival of the last five or so years is definitely still trucking along in Last Dimension’s Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge. Exciting news for those who pine for the days of side-scrolling blast-em-up platformers like Duke Nukem and Jill of the Jungle, and if you’re a stickler for authenticity in your modern retro-inspired experiences, then this game is sure to tickle your fancy. If you’re looking for something that takes on retro tropes while adding in modern day functionality and playability, like say Super Meat Boy or Super House of Dead Ninjas however, it may be best to look elsewhere. Ultionus is a bit of a stark reminder that while games of that era were pretty good for their time, their simple mechanics and fussy controls don’t quite hold up well under scrutiny today.

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Ultionus admirably sets out to create as close to an authentic experience of those older games as it can, much to its own detriment. It’ll become immediately obvious once you’re in control of our scantily clad, massively boobied heroine. Movement is slow and chunky, making her feel more like something out of Turrican rather than an action game starring a human protagonist. The entire game almost feels as if it’s taking place underwater with how slow your character moves and how floaty her jump can be. Most enemies move along at a pretty fast clip which makes reacting to them quickly vital to not taking damage, but it’s often very hard to do since your own movement feels so restrained.

Making matters worse is that the blaster you quickly acquire in the first stage fires at a ridiculously slow rate, and after unloading five shots it starts firing even slower. This makes dealing with the constant waves of enemies coming from both sides of the screen feel almost impossible at times, and may even trick one into thinking something’s wrong with their gamepad or the way the game reads inputs. You’ll lose count of the number of times you’re sitting there jamming on the fire button with an enemy all up in your grill and then nothing comes out. Most enemy spawns are random, so even trying to plan your way through a stage isn’t going to be enough to always ensure you’ll be able to fire when you need to. Making this even more confusing is that the third stage of the game, an auto-scroller, doesn’t have this restriction. You’re still clearly firing the same blaster, but you can get a shot off every time you press the button without any kind of cool down. At no point in the game can you ever fire your blaster like this again, and it feels almost mean to dangle that kind of power in front of the player only to take it away moments later.

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The game does try to address this issue slightly in the form of an upgrade system. This system isn’t really straight forward, and not only do you have to figure out HOW to access the upgrade shops, you also have to scour every stage just to find them AS WELL AS have enough points to actually be able to purchase them. For how terrible your firing rate is, it definitely feels like the path to upgrades could have been a little less convoluted.

Your blaster has three upgrades, of which only one of them is useful. Of course it’s the one that lets you fire a teensy bit faster. The damage upgrade, explosive rounds, doesn’t seem to impact your damage output at all, and the three-way spread is hardly a noticeable addition. Defensive upgrades are also available, which can help enhance your abilities slightly, such as adding a little more mobility with a cape, but they end up feeling more like cosmetic additions than anything that actually impacts gameplay.

The stages themselves are exactly what you’d expect from a game emulating that area of PC games. They’re fairly large and chock full of secrets and alternate paths to be found. It’s pretty commonplace to start out in say a fiery, lava-filled cavern area, and somehow find your way to an outside mountain climb with entirely different enemy types and secrets. The stage design is definitely a strong point and adds a bit to replayability since each stage can be so varied.

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The enemies that inhabit these areas however, aren’t quite as strong. Once you’ve seen the enemy variety in the first stage, you’ve almost seen them all. You’ve got your typical movers, flyers, and shooters, which all end up behaving nearly identical throughout the game, with the only differences being new sprites to accommodate the new locale.

Boss fights on the other hand, are done quite well. They’re appropriately menacing and definitely the kind of pay-off one expects at the end of a stage. All bosses operate on simple attack patterns and are fairly easy to learn, but difficult to master, no thanks to the muddy controls. They’re definitely a welcome high mark in a game that feels mostly tedious and unresponsive.

Speaking of high marks, it should no doubt already be apparent from the screenshots provided that Ultionus spares almost no expense when it comes to presentation. Laughably terrible character designs aside, the game is a graphical treat for the eyes, with slick sprite work that makes its characters and enemies come to life layered on top of richly-detailed backgrounds that pop with brilliant color and loads of background animation. Similarly, the game’s audio is at the top of its game, thanks to the talents of Jake “Virt” Kaufman. The tunes that set the stage for Ultionus’ action are period-appropriate and stuffed full of those earwormy melodies that will simply refuse to leave your head long after you’ve stopped playing.

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The love for the late-80′s/early-90′s era of PC gaming with which Ultionus was created is apparent. Warts and all, the game presents itself as-is without much of an apology which is an idea I can get behind to an extent. The recently released  MURI is a good example of how you can still have one foot planted firmly in the past, and another in the now. A love for an era and fantastic presentation can hardly save a mediocre game from being mediocre though. Sacrificing responsive controls and overall game balance for an artistic vision may be admirable, but as a fun game, Ultionus just doesn’t cut it.

Final Score: 3.5/10

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